New paramilitaries and violence in Córdoba Is war imminent? Probably not.
Nov 092009

On Friday the U.S. government finally released its estimate of how much coca was cultivated in Colombia in 2008. The result is the first reduction in coca-growing since 2002-2003, a significant drop from 167,000 hectares measured in 2007 to 119,000 hectares in 2008. (A hectare is equal to 2.47 acres.) This brings the U.S. government’s coca cultivation estimate to its lowest level since 2004. (The U.S. government has not yet released 2008 coca data for Peru and Bolivia.)

This matches a downward 2007-2008 trend – though not the number of hectares – that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime announced (PDF) back in June.

A reduction in coca cultivation is good news. But what caused it? Here is what Friday’s press release from the U.S. embassy to Colombia says:

According to analysts, the principal reasons for the decline were steadfast aerial and manual eradication pressure delivered against the primary Colombian growing areas, increased government presence and security forces in select growing regions and successful operation against drug trafficking organizations. Violence between trafficking groups and economic disruptions that affect farmers’ planting decisions were also a factor.

Certainly, eradication was a key variable. But eradication has changed since 2006, which was the peak year for the U.S.-funded aerial herbicide fumigation program. Fumigation was a centerpiece of Plan Colombia, but groups like ours have long maintained that it was counterproductive and ineffective. And the coca-cultivation statistics appeared to agree.

The fumigation program has declined since 2006. By 2008, the United States was supporting the spraying of 38,000 fewer hectares in Colombia.

Instead, the emphasis has gone to manual eradication. Teams of eradicators, protected by the security forces, pull farmers’ coca plants out of the ground. This is dangerous to the eradicators, but appears to be more effective than sending planes to spray overhead without bothering to establish any state presence on the ground. 53,000 more hectares were manually eradicated in 2008 than in 2006.

The statistics are showing manual eradication to be more effective than fumigation at reducing coca. However, forced manual eradication is hardly a panacea. Most Colombian coca growers are small farm families in some of the poorest parts of the country. If their crops are manually eradicated and they are left with no economic options – no government presence, no farm-to-market roads, no help making the transition to a legal economy, not even basic food security assistance – they are more likely to attempt coca growing again, and to view the Colombian state as an adversary. Manual eradication must be carefully calibrated with a strategy to bring coca farmers, some of Colombia’s poorest and most marginalized citizens, out of illegality.

There are strong reasons to worry that the gains measured in 2008 aren’t permanent. We will not know for sure, however, until at least June 2010, when the UNODC will likely release its 2009 coca estimates.

  • Manual eradication in 2009 has not kept pace with 2008. While 95,731 hectares were eradicated manually in 2008, by late September of this year Colombia’s police had eradicated 40,000: less than half as much, three-quarters of the way through the year. Conversations with U.S. officials over the course of 2009 indicate that fumigation has also dropped further this year.
  • Economic conditions may be inspiring more rural farmers to turn to coca. This is particularly the case in coca-growing zones, especially Putumayo and Nariño departments, that were hit hard by the collapse of several large pyramid schemes in November of last year – too late to be registered in the 2008 coca data. Anecdotal evidence from these zones indicates that of the tens of thousands of families who saw their savings wiped out with the demise of DMG and other schemes, a portion turned back to the coca economy in 2009.
  • Armed groups – both the FARC and “new” paramilitary groups – have been much more active in several coca-growing zones, most notably the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia (several paramilitary groups), southern Córdoba (paramilitary), Putumayo (FARC), Meta (FARC and paramilitary) and Nariño and Cauca (virtually all armed groups). This reactivation could bring an uptick in 2009 coca cultivation in some of these areas.

The progress of 2008 is fragile. It owes much to a forced manual eradication model that, though more effective than fumigation, is not a substitute for governing and creating economic opportunity in rural zones. With some signs pointing to disappointment in 2009, there is no reason to believe that a solution has been found. The strategy has to keep changing.

5 Responses to “2008: less fumigation, less coca”

  1. ¿Disminuye la coca? « Drogas y conflicto en Colombia Says:

    [...] de la coca en Colombia. La pregunta clave ante esta evidencia es a qué obedece esta disminución. Adam Isacson, especialista en Colombia que ha venido monitoreando la situación de los cultivos desde hace años [...]

  2. Camilo Wilson Says:

    Yes, “the progress of 2008 is fragile.” Me acuerdo de la letra de una canción por Dusty Springfield, “Nothing is forever”:

    Always is a dream,
    Life goes by so fast;
    You try to make it last,
    The future turns to past;
    And summer turns to snow,
    Ohhh….Ohhh.

    Nothing is forever,
    I will understand…

  3. Kyle Says:

    If I recall correctly from the UN report, some 22,000 families stopped growing coca last year – or 22,000 less families grew coca in 2008 than in 2007. I don’t think we will find an answer to coca crop decreases in anything to do with eradication, but in the reasons because of which those families stopped growing coca. I just hope its not an ugly one like 22,000 coca growing families were displaced to cascos urbanos. I feel that if that is investigated, a much better, thorough and accurate answer will be found. After all, in the same vereda there are people who grow coca and people who do not. Here, I think, will we find our answer…

  4. Kyle Says:

    Does anyone remember when these things were released on Good Friday (if I remember correctly…)?

  5. lina Says:

    Another reason that forced manual eradication is Not a panacea is that it often results in violence and human rights violations against the campesinos in the areas it passes through – there have been reports of stolen goods, dogs shot, houses burnt down, and sexual violence against women.

    Furthermore, forced manual eradication requires a violation of international humanitarian law.
    These teams of hundreds of eradicators and public forces camp on private lands for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. And given that coca is often in conflict zones, this puts the local residents at risk of attack from insurgent groups.

    After having heard reports that the teams often steal food crops from farms they pass through, I talked to a leader of an eradication team about what it is they eat. He admitted that they receive food supplies by helicopter, and that those supplies are canned goods, which get boring after a few days. Unfortunately, both fumigation and FME result in increased food insecurity for local farmers.

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